By Jay Reeves
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s parole board decided Wednesday against freeing a one-time Ku Klux Klansman convicted in a church bombing that killed four black girls more than 50 years ago.
The decision to keep Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., 76, imprisoned was met with applause at the hearing. Relatives of the girls killed spoke against Blanton’s release during the hearing.
Blanton is the last surviving KKK member convicted of murder in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
Blanton was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001 for being part of a group of Klansmen who planted a dynamite bomb that exploded outside the church on Sept. 15, 1963. The blast killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Morris, also known as Cynthia Wesley.
The girls, who were inside the church preparing for worship, died instantly in a hail of bricks and stone that seriously injured Collins’ sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph. Their deaths inside a church on a Sunday morning became a symbol worldwide of the depth of racial hatred in the segregated South.
Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blanton on the state charge, had previously said Blanton shouldn’t be released since he has never accepted responsibility for the bombing or expressed any remorse for a crime that was aimed at maintaining racial separation at a time Birmingham’s public schools were facing a court order to desegregate.
Long a suspect in the case, Blanton was the second of three people convicted in the bombing. Robert Chambliss, convicted in 1977, and Bobby Frank Cherry, who was convicted in the bombing in 2002, have both died in prison.
Blanton and Cherry were indicted in 2000 after the FBI reopened an investigation of the bombing. Evidence against Blanton included secret recordings that were made using FBI bugs at his home and in the car of a fellow Klansman turned informant.
Blanton can be considered for parole again in five years.